Archive for the ‘Vernacularism’ Category
Darkened Days, a series of black and white photographs by the Swiss artist Simone Kappeler, is currently being shown at the Douglas Hyde Gallery – a phenomenal space physically located within, though still independent of, Trinity College in Dublin. Gallery visitors dramatically descend into the vast cube-shaped space via a staircase. The concrete ceiling is perhaps more reminiscent of Soviet-era brutalism than it alludes to the academic weight of Ireland’s oldest and most-renowned university above ground.
Kappeler’s photographs are displayed in Gallery 2, a room further back behind the main space. Darkened Days is a series of black and white photographs, perhaps located within the genre of ‘street photography’, taken in Dublin with a square format Diana camera during a four-day period, as the captions matter-of-factly reveal. Kappeler mostly concentrated on photographing people: girls dressed up for a night out, a couple of brave swimmers half-submerged in the water of the Irish Sea at Sandycove, or a child running on the lawn of the Botanical Garden. Apart from being photographed in the same city (Dublin) over the same period of time (four days in October 2011), it is very hard to discern what these images actually have in common. Neither is it clear how they relate to the title of the series Darkened Days. The viewer shall be forgiven for feeling confused about the intended meaning of these photographs.
Similar to the Lomo camera, the Diana is essentially a toy camera which creates images with out-of-focus borders and an overall nostalgic appearance. Indeed, it is the same type of effect that the extremely popular Instagram application creates on smartphones. Yet these are technical details that do not necessarily help in understanding the photographs and their relationship to each other. What do the photographs mean? What do they seek to communicate? What is the artist’s agenda? For the time being, the viewer needs to be satisfied with the banal knowledge that the artist photographed a place in time.
Perhaps the images are meant to be confusing. One could argue that the psychological state of confusion and lack of direction in the photographs relates to the sudden downfall of the Celtic Tiger. The title Darkened Days could be a representation of the gloomy outlook of the Irish economy. The soft focus of the Diana camera could allude to the slightly skewed perspective of an outsider observing Ireland’s social landscape. The black and white images could reference a city steeped in history. Even the square format could be an ironic reference to the increased disequilibrium between the have and the have-nots. Yet any of these interpretations would not be an accurate representation of a series of photographs that appear to be conceptually ungrounded.
Born in 1952, and with a photographic archive that dates back to 1964, Kappeler is best-known for her eclectic and experimental approach to photography: alpine landscapes photographed with an infrared film, washed out Polaroids of nudes, or portraits displayed as colour negatives. In her work Kappeler tests the boundaries of photography. The relationship between child and adulthood, as well as the clash between nature and culture appear to be reoccurring motifs in her previous works. Yet in the absence of a clear motif in Darkened Days, an appreciation of the photographs on display is obscured by an arduous search for meaning.
The photobook ‘Hesitating Beauty’ interrogates the complex family history of the American photographer Joshua Lutz. More specifically, the main subject of the book is Lutz’ mother who suffers from a psychological illness. The book combines old family photographs, text and Lutz’ own photographic observations that capture the decline of his mother’s mental well-being. By presenting visual and textual information as purposefully non-linear and kaleidoscopic, Lutz not only mirrors his mother’s fragmented state of mind, but also, it represents his own fragmented childhood and upbringing. It is a deeply personal and self-referential project that places the photographer at the very centre of inquiry.
The title of the project is derived from a song by the folk musician Woody Guthrie who also suffered from mental health issues towards the end of his life. Indeed, the ‘hesitating beauty’ of Lutz’ mother (H.B. from hereon) is accurately captured in old family photographs in which she can be seen smiling while sitting on a bicycle, or, in another photograph, adoringly looking up at Lutz’ father. These images paint the image of a free-spirited and happy person who has her whole life ahead of her.
Yet the cryptic text increasingly reveals that behind this sparkling smile is a complex and troubled history with mental illness. A more recent family photograph of H.B. shows her looking at a photograph – her happy smile is now replaced with scepticism and suspicion. In a sense, H.B. metaphorically queries her own representation in this image. Lutz consciously uses family photographs in order to deconstruct the ideology of the Kodak moment, or the perfect family photograph. Perfection, happiness, beauty – all these dimensions begin to crumple behind the glossy surface of the Lutz photographic archive from the 1970s and 80s.
In addition to old family photographs (or ‘found’ photographs as they are sometimes referred to), the book incorporates photographs that Lutz himself took of his mother – many of which at the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Centre. She is barely recognisable in comparison to images from her youth. One image shows H.B. lying in a hospital bed, an oxygen tube is attached to her mouth, the white tape holding on to the tube bears the hand-written remark: ‘Do Not Wake’. Her head is on the far edge of the photograph, perhaps emphasising the peripheral state of her mental condition. Another image shows the various wrist tags that H.B. is wearing while in treatment. One reads ‘Fall Risk’ while the other reads ‘Haldol’: a potent drug prescribed for the treatment of acute psychosis or schizophrenia.
Lutz is careful not to turn his mother’s mental decline into a spectacle. The ambiguousness of many images is amplified by a photographic methodology that embraces obscurity, coded messages and what appear to be re-enactments. In addition to bending the limitations of the photobook with an eclectic collection of photographs, text and archival images, ‘Hesitating Beauty’ cunningly also blurs the very boundaries between fantasy and reality.
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From the introduction to the book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things published by Jean Boîte Éditions in Paris:
‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ is the eponymous title of a photoblog that took the Internet by storm. Created by João Rocha, an art director at an advertising firm in Lisbon, the blog is a collection of photographs which depict the ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea apparently engaged in the act of looking. Since its creation in October 2010, every few days Rocha posts a photograph appropriated from the Korean Central News Agency. These photographs consistently focus on Kim Jong Il who stands in the centre of the image as his loyal countrymen and women obligingly introduce him to a person of interest, a product, a machine, a new invention, an animal, a food item, a vegetable or indeed anything else that can be looked at.
The photographs produced by the official press agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are remarkably consistent in what they depict and in the way that they are photographed. Kim Jong Il usually stands in the centre of the image, wearing a grey suit or overcoat, as he is accompanied by members of the Communist Party, military personnel or senior advisors. While the main subject of the photographs are characterised by their remarkable similarity with each other, the background to the photographs is different in each image: Kim Jong Il can be seen in a computer lab, a factory, a kitchen, a farm and so forth. In short, the anonymous photographer (or photographers) of the Korean Central News Agency represented Kim Jong Il with a great deal of attention towards visual coherence and aesthetic continuity. João Rocha’s creation does not lie in taking the photographs as such, but rather, it lies in discovering this coherence, editing images accordingly and then publishing it for others to see.
From its beginnings as a blog with a few images, to the enormous cultural impact of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ as a global Internet phenomenon, this essay seeks to uncover some of the elements that made the project so popular. The essay seeks to establish that part of the popularity of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ lies in a type of humour that was historically used to critique fascist, undemocratic or simply unpopular leaders. João Rocha’s extremely dry captions beneath the photographs are key to the satirical dimension of the project. Apart from that however, the essay seeks to deconstruct the Kim Jong Il photographs which ultimately had the greatest impact on the popularity on the project. By looking at ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’, the viewer becomes increasingly aware how carefully constructed (and at times contrived) propagandistic imagery can be. III The extended essay, analyzing the popularity and attraction of this Internet phenomenon in more detail, can be found in the recently published book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.
Thank you to the photographer David Kregenow and thank you to Rémi Coignet, founder of the blog Des livres et des photo, who created the Photography Maps of Berlin and Paris. Photography Maps of London and Tokyo are online as well. Please get in touch if you want to contribute to the Photography Map Project.